January 14: John 1:29

The Gospel of John differs markedly from the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew-Mark-Luke), and nowhere more so than in describing the Baptism of Jesus (commemorated on the octave of Epiphany, January 13). While clearly drawing from common traditions, the Fourth Gospel offers no narrative description of the baptism such as is found three-fold in Mark 1:9-11, Matthew 3:13-17, and Luke 3:21-22. Instead, we find testimony given by John the Baptist (John 1:29-34), involving three revelatory statements (one might treat these as pieces of early Christian kerygma) which serve to demarcate this brief narrative:

    1. John 1:29—”See! the Lamb of God…”
    2. John 1:30-31—”This is he over whom I said…”
    3. John 1:32-34—”I beheld the Spirit…”

I will be discussing each of these over three successive notes.

John 1:29

It is important first to consider the place of this episode in the structure of the Gospel (chapter 1). I would outline this as follows:

  • The Prologue (Jn 1:1-18)—this famous and remarkable section may reflect an earlier Jewish-Christian hymn which has been adapted by the Gospel writer. Notably, two (parenthetical) references to John the Baptist have been inserted:
    (1) Introducing John, with a statement that he was not the true Light, but only bore witness to it (1:6-8)
    (2) A statement summarizing John’s witness (1:15, nearly identical with v. 30).
  • The testimony of John the Baptist (Jn 1:19-28)—”I am not the Christ… (nor) the Prophet…”
    • The theological witness of John the Baptist (Jn 1:29-34)—”See, the Lamb of God…”
    • The evangelistic witness John the Baptist (Jn 1:35-39)—”See, the Lamb of God…”
  • The testimony of the first followers (Jn 1:41-51)—”We have found the Messiah… of whom Moses.. and the prophets wrote…”

In John 1:19-28 is narrated not only the Baptist’s testimony (in answer to questions by priests and Levites from Jerusalem), but a description of his baptizing (lit. dipping/dunking) and the reason for it. This sets the stage for verse 29:

“Upon the morrow he sees Yeshua coming toward him and says/relates: ‘See—the lamb of God, the (one) taking up the sins of the world!'”

The interpretation of this verse involves determining the meaning and context for two expressions:

    • “the lamb of God” (o( a)mno\$ tou= qeou=)
    • ” the (one) taking up the sins of the world” (o( ai&rwn th\n a(marti/an tou= ko/smou)

The first expression “Lamb of God” is so familiar as a Christian title for Jesus, it may be surprising to learn that it occurs nowhere else in the New Testament outside of the parallel references in John 1:29, 36. Elsewhere, the idea of Jesus as a lamb only appears in 1 Peter 1:10 and in the book of Revelation (29 times), although there the word a)rni/on (diminutive of a)rh/n) is used. a)mno/$ occurs only twice in the New Testament outside of John 1:29, 36 (in Acts 8:32 [quoting Isa 53:7], and 1 Peter 1:19). There are three primary images associated with the Lamb (a)mno/$) relevant to the context here:

1. The Lamb as a symbol of innocence and meekness (in the face of suffering). This actually reflects two themes: (a) the gentleness/innocence of the lamb, often contrasted with the wolf (Isa 11:6; 65:25); and (b) the helplessness of the lamb (Isa 40:11; Luke 10:3, etc), especially as one led for slaughter (Isa 53:7; Jer 51:40). The use of a)mno/$ in Isa 53:7, would especially come to mind for early Christians, for it was a passage applied to the suffering and death of Christ from the earliest time—it is read/quoted in Acts 8:32, and note the silence of Jesus before the Sanhedrin and Pilate in the Passion accounts (Mark 14:61; 15:5, and par.).

2. The Sacrificial (Passover) Lamb. a)rni/on (or a)rh/n) is used in the LXX for the burnt offering (Lev 1:10) and for the Passover lamb in Ex 12:5; whereas a)mno/$ is used for the daily offering (Ex 29:38-39) and for ‘guilt’/purification offerings in (Lev 14:10; Num 6:12). So, a)mno/$ here would better fit the idea of sacrifice for ‘sin’ or sacrifice in general. However, the Gospel of John makes frequent use of Passover motifs and symbols, including an explicit identification of Jesus with the Passover lamb in Jn 19:14, 31-36. The Passover Lamb also seems to be in mind with the use of a)mno/$ in 1 Pet 1:19.

3. The Conquering Lamb (of Judgment). This is an important theme in the book of Revelation (from the same author and/or community as the Gospel): Jesus is not only the “lamb that was slain” (Rev 5:12; 13:8, “blood of the lamb” in 7:14; 12:11), but also is exalted/worshiped as the Lamb in Heaven (Rev 5:6-12; 7:9-10, 17; 14:1ff, etc.); included within this motif is the Lamb as a conquering figure in the eschatological Judgment (6:1, 16; 17:14, etc). The book of Revelation uses a)rni/on instead of a)mno/$, but, as seen above, these words are relatively interchangeable. Now the theme of (eschatological) Judgment was central in John the Baptist’s preaching, much more than Christians today may wish to admit (cf. Matt 3:7-12; Luke 3:7-9, 17; and the central citation of Isa 40:3/Mal 3:1 in Mark 1:2-3 par.). It is certainly possible that he (perhaps moreso than the Gospel writer) has this association in mind—as a possible parallel, cf. the Testament of Joseph 19:8 (which may however be a Christian interpolation).

In my view the second image above (that of the Sacrificial Lamb) is most directly applicable in Jn 1:29. However what of the other expression “the (one) taking up the sins of the world”?

“The sins of the world” (th\n a(marti/an tou= ko/smou) is fairly straightforward, as it reflects closely the idea that Jesus acts on the behalf of the sins of (many) people (cf. Matt 1:21; 13:41; 26:28; Mark 2:10; 3:28; Lk 11:4; 24:47; Jn 8:24; 15:22, 24; 16:8-9; 20:23, etc. and all pars.). In the Gospel of John there also is a frequent association of “the world” (o( ko/smo$) with darkness, evil, and sin (Jn 1:10; 3:17-19; 7:7; 8:23; 9:39; 12:31; 14:17, 19, 30; 15:18-19; 16:8, 11, 20, et al.), which may be responsible for the unique expression as it stands here. The more difficult point of interpretation is in the use of the verb ai&rw, which has the primary meaning “take up”—here o( ai&rwn (“the [one] taking up…”). This can be understood in one of three ways:

  • “taking up” as in lifting, bearing, carrying—the emphasis would be that the Lamb takes up or carries the (burden of) the world’s sins. Language involving “lifting” or “raising” occurs often in the Gospel of John, including use of the verb ai&rw; see for example in context of the Good Shepherd parable(s), Jn 10:18, 24. This motif would better apply to the Day of Atonement than Passover, but it could be understood from the standpoint of vicarious sacrifice in general. Jesus is “lifted up” on the cross as the slain Passover lamb in Jn 19:14, 31-36 (cf. also Jn 3:14; 8:28; 12:32, 34).
  • “taking up” in the sense of taking away—i.e., forgiveness. This is no doubt the most common understanding of the expression here; however, “forgiveness of sin” as such is normally expressed with the verb a)fi/hmi (“send [away] from” or “let [go] from”) or the noun a&fesi$ (“release”)—cf. Mark 1:4; 2:9; 3:28; 6:12, 14-15; Matt 9:2, 5-6; 12:31-32; 26:28; Lk 24:47; John 20:23; Acts 2:38; 5:31; 10:43, etc.
  • “taking up” as taking away, but in the sense of removing or destroying sins—i.e. esp. in the (eschatological) Judgment. For something of this idea, see Matthew 13:41, which is reasonably close to the scene of Judgment in John’s preaching (Matt 3:12; Lk 3:9, 17); that the Baptist himself understood this in terms of an (imminent) eschatological Judgment seems clear enough from Lk 3:7. See also in this regard the ethical saying of Jesus to “cut off” the cause of sin (Mk 9:42-47 par., again in the context of the Judgment). In other words, the Johannine image of Jesus as savior of the world (John 3:16-17; 4:42; 6:33; 12:47, etc) involves not just forgiveness, but destruction of sin. This is the two-fold aspect of (the coming) Judgment (and wrath of God): salvation and destruction—see Jn 3:17, 19; 7:7; 9:39; 12:46-47; 16:8-11.

Perhaps the soundest guide to interpretation of the expressions in Jn 1:29 come from the closest parallel, namely 1 John 3:5:

“and know that this one [i.e. Jesus] was made to shine forth [i.e. appear] so that he might take up/away [a&rh|] sins; and in him there is no sin”

for which there is a parallel, explanatory statement in 1 John 3:8b:

“and unto this the Son of God was made to shine forth [i.e. appear] so that he might loose [i.e. dissolve/destroy] the works of the Accuser [i.e. Devil]”

In other words, “taking away sins” is connected with “dissolving the works of the Devil”. In 1 Jn 3:5 we also have mention of Jesus’ sinlessness, which can be understood as a parallel to the (Passover) Lamb without spot or blemish (cf. 1 Peter 1:19 [a)mno/$]).

For several references and observations in these posts on John 1:29-34, I am indebted to the discussion in R. E. Brown’s classic Commentary (John 1-12, Anchor Bible vol. 29, 1966, pp. 58-67).

For more on the Baptism of Jesus, see the recently posted daily notes for Jan 6 and Jan 13.

One critical theory is that a)mno/$ (“lamb”) in John 1:29 reflects an ambiguity in, or misunderstanding of, an original Aramaic word (ay`l=f^ ‰alyâ, Heb. hl#f*) which can mean both “lamb” or “child, youth, servant”. Now pai=$ also can carry the sense of “servant”; so the argument goes that the original expression would have been something like ah*l*ad@ ay`l=f^, i.e., “Servant of God”, which ought to have been rendered in Greek as o( pai=$ qeou=, was instead (mistakenly) translated o( a)mno/$ qeou=. It is an intriguing argument (for a more detailed summary cf. J. Jeremias, TDNT I:338-340), but apart from all other objections, the process by which original sayings of Jesus and John the Baptist, etc., presumably given in Aramaic, were turned into traditional oral and written (Greek) sources for our Gospels is still quite uncertain (and have been hotly debated by scholars). Even if John originally used the word ay`l=f^, the idea that it was then ‘mistranslated’ into Greek is highly speculative.

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